Position Competition: Cat LB

Irisheyes.com continues its look at nine spring competitions that will help determine starting roles next fall. Today's focus involves a position with just one returning depth chart member, and as a result, one likely to welcome multiple new competitors this spring.

Click the links below for the first three position battles in our series:

Field Cornerback

Right Tackle

Right Guard

Forthcoming competition previews include: Dog linebacker, the third and fourth wide receivers, quarterbacks, and place-kicker.

(Unless otherwise noted, each player's class designations are referenced in terms of 2012, not last season).

Position Competition #4 – Cat Linebacker

Graduating senior Darius Fleming started 36 games (26 consecutive) over his four-year, 50-game Irish career and left the program as its No. 10 all-time sack-master (15) and just outside its top 10 in terms of tackles for lost yardage (32.5). His production and consistent presence will be difficult to replace.

Ascending from the No. 2 role on the depth chart is sophomore Ishaq Williams. After appearing on the season's opening kick-off and often throughout its first month, Williams saw his scrimmage time decrease, culminating with no snaps vs. USC or two weeks later at Wake Forest. The true freshman finished with six tackles including one in the Champs Sports Bowl loss to Florida State.

Williams won't be handed the starting role, which means Dog Linebacker and two-year regular Prince Shembo is likely to be reevaluated for the position. Shembo at times appeared a fish out of water at the Dog spot – a role charged with field coverage responsibilities, often in open space vs. much quicker slot receivers, running backs, and tight ends. Shembo's pass-rushing skill and strength to hold the edge vs. the run makes him a natural to work back into Cat ‘backer competition. (The Cat LB aligns to the boundary or short/near side of the defensive formation.)

Williams' classmate and another 2011 Dog ‘backer, Troy Niklas, could also see a position switch to the Cat role. At nearly 6'7" 250 pounds and growing, Niklas' future isn't in open space. He'll either evolve into a defensive lineman or protect Notre Dame's boundary side as a Cat LB. Niklas played in every game except the Florida State contest last fall, finishing with 20 tackles.

Considered a potential Cat prospect entering the program last summer, redshirt-freshman Anthony Rabasa worked at inside linebacker last fall. Incoming freshman Romeo Okwara is a likely Cat prospect when he hits the LaBar Practice Complex next August.

Spring (Crystal) Ball

A staff that preaches daily competition won't have untested sophomore-to-be Ishaq Williams as its de facto starter entering the spring. Look for both Shembo and Niklas to get long looks at the position and for Rabasa to potentially get a second evaluation there as well, especially considering the glut of ILB prospects available to defensive coordinator Bob Diaco in both 2012 and 2013.

A January enrollee last year, Williams' noted, through both self-assessment and that of the coaching staff, that a weakness he had to overcome early in his career was that he didn't go hard on every play. That's a major concern. It's less of an issue that he was unable to beat out the senior Fleming for much meaningful scrimmage time last fall as the latter was held in high regard by both Diaco and Kelly.

(Barely) Educated Spring Guesses for the Cat Linebackers: Completely hypothetical and projections, of course:

  1. Shembo is moved from his Dog role (more on that in a forthcoming preview) and will either emerge as the spring starter (Notre Dame doesn't technically designate spring starters for public consumption) or return to a hybrid pass-rushing role as a situational player next fall. Shembo is a valuable edge rusher in both the team's nickel and dime sets.

  2. Niklas' potential evaluation at Cat is a success but the Anaheim, Ca., native's frame evolves into that of a lightning-quick defensive end, allowing Williams and Shembo to go head-to-head again in August.

  3. Williams emerges as a rotation regular and/or starter, or flounders in 2012. A player with his skill set and approach needs competition and meaningful scrimmage time to succeed. Not ideal, but talent isn't always developed equally or similarly. Spring 2012 is a crucial practice session for the 6'5" 255-pounder from Brooklyn.

The Irish will target a top-tier Cat LB in the 2013 recruiting cycle.

Coach's Quotes to Note: A pair from Kelly last November:

  1. "He's already had his hand on the ground," Kelly said of Shembo's experience as a pass-rushing defensive lineman. "In our nickel he was a pass rusher for us. I think that role continues to grow in keeping him on the field even if the (opposing) personnel is four-wide and sometimes five."

  2. "I don't think so," Kelly said of a position switch from Dog for Shembo. "We feel pretty good about where we are right now. That's still something that we'll evaluate in the off-season. I think in terms of Prince Shembo in particular, I think he's got a pretty good future."

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